No footwear collaboration has sparked more discussion this year than Virgil Abloh's 'The Ten.’ Serving as more than a mere hype-stoking exercise, the ultimate goal of his partnership with Nike was to flip convention on its head by recontextualising 10 (or nine to be more accurate!) key Nike models and by doing so, illuminate the artistic process. As the project rolled out, the Off-White founder has been hosting ‘Off Campus’ workshops around the globe where he engages with sneakerheads more accustomed to a deadstock mindset than DIY creativity. The message? Care less about the result and more about the process. With Abloh touching down in Sydney to host an event in partnership with Supply and BespokeIND, Sneaker Freaker sat down with the most influential figure in streetwear right now for this "exclusive" interview.
What's it like being Virgil Abloh at the moment? How do you deal with the wealth of opportunities while making sure you still get the work done?
It's not work for starters. It's a creative life. I enjoy the pace. I enjoy the opportunity to make things, to think about things. As soon as I get on a plane I write emails. It's my trade, you know? In a way I'm still the 17-year-old kid that thinks that Nike will never call. Even though it's happening, it doesn't seem real. I'm still bright-eyed and into it. There's things I want to do that I don't get to do. That's what I focus on.
Is there a creative downside to suddenly becoming famous and recognised?
In my mind I'm not famous so there's no downside as of yet. I'm enjoying the work. When I started, I made a decision to try to do everything at the highest level. I don't want to be put in a box and limited to feeling like I can't do things that are on the mass level.
Have you become more ambitious as you’ve become more successful?
I think so. I don't settle for, ‘Oh, this is good enough.’ I also don't dwell on it. I just sit and think, like, ‘Oh, I want to do this. This is cool.’ I use the means that I have to do what I can.
How confident were you that 'The Ten' would be a success?
I wasn't. Like with anything that I do, I try to satisfy myself first. The reaction just doesn't fulfil me at all. I don't read anything about anything that I create. I just hope people like what I do. The design part is more like an insular conversation with myself.
So no checking eBay to see what everything's selling for?
Nah. I just feel like if it's good, it works. But I do like that there's a metric where you can see if a design passed a certain threshold or not. But you don't need to look it up. You can just tell.
Kanye was famous for saying he wanted his shoes to be super accessible. How do you think about not just the Off-White stuff that you've done, but also this Nike colab?
I'm very into designer stuff – by which I mean product that is meant to inspire the next generation of commercial product. That's what I think the role of a designer should be – we're supposed to be the hyper consumer doing something slightly disruptive. I don't care if my aesthetic creeps into Foot Locker. It's my job to come up with the next idea after that. I want to be in the space that incubates new design ideas, and then that can just trickle down into the marketplace. That's my approach. It’s like the concept car in an auto show. It actually doesn't work as a car, but it looks like it could and it serves needs that aren't practical. I'd like to see that mentality in all different disciplines, and sneakers is one where I can particularly exercise that train of thought.
Do you ever worry about who is buying your product?
No. I don't know what there would be to worry about. I just like that kids are wearing it. I'm much more interested in designing something that isn't just for sneakerheads. I think that's where streetwear can grow – not just catering to ourselves, but like, ‘Hey, let's make a design that an investment banker can wear just because he thinks it's cool!’ We're in a postmodern era, so it's all about the next evolution.
ComplexCon provoked a lot of discussion online. A lot of industry people are questioning the obsession with rampant profiteering in regards to the long-term health of sneaker culture. You were part of the first two events. What's your impression?
It's not even a culture. It's simply a metric to show how uninventive the commerce side of this business is. Right now I think we're stuck in the ways of the first generation of streetwear that is based on exclusivity. That doesn't matter anymore. Any kid that wants it doesn't care if a million people have it – they still want it.
It would be a rare case scenario in the history of retail product, where you had say, a demographic of 1000 people that want to buy something and the company only makes ten. I'm shocked by that approach. I'm on the creative side, but if I was on the business side, I would make sure that everyone that walks into ComplexCon would be able to buy whatever they want. Once brands figure that out, all of a sudden their business is going to grow.
But there's an inherent tension there between supply and demand. When you're a kid, you want to be like everybody else, but you still want to be regarded as an individual. But if everyone has the same stuff, it's definitely not cool anymore.
I'm not a fan of people waiting in line and not getting product. I am generally disinterested in sneaker culture. Disinterested by the fact that when a cool sneaker comes out, I have no idea how to get it. I don't have the time to figure it out. What I would do is just pay market price if I really wanted it. I just don't know who to go to!
Surely your PA calls up whoever for a plug?
,The scene has transcended the sneaker itself. Even if I had the sort of rare one-of-whatever ‘friends and family’ pair, it’s at a level of hyper, hyper insider minutiae. When I fell in love with sneakers, it was all about Jordans and Terra Humara and Air Max 90s that were sold at Finish Line. They weren't exclusive, they were just cool for the time. Now it's gotten to be, like, ‘It comes out this date and they're gone!’ No one's really wearing them and there's a new pair every two seconds.
The cool stuff is never on a shelf anymore, which is weird. I miss the old days of course, but if I tell youngins it was way better 10 or 15 years ago, what's the point? Makes me feel old and they rightly don't care.
They're still excited. They're going to grow up with the knowledge that sneaker culture was at its prime right now. It's like hip hop and skateboarding. If you skated you were a detriment to society – now it's all over McDonald's commercials. I'm always reluctant to be anti-evolution. Everything that predated it has always gone through this thing – I think the internet just made it hyper.
True. I just wonder how much bigger sneaker culture can get and still retain its cool factor.
An epiphany came through when I was talking to you earlier. I figured out the weak link. It's only input. As it gets bigger, I think that the core, the engine driver of the people pouring new ideas into it has stayed the same, while the industry just got bigger.
That is also true.
There are more shoes trying to fill the bigger demand, but there's not that same multiplier of cool creativity that comes from the likes of Supreme, Palace, Stash and Futura. Literally, there’s like five people that are in their own space that have something to offer this multiplicity. It went from 100 to 10,000 to 100,000.
For sure. I'm still not sure that bigger is better.
It's not, it's just going to be the new mainstream. And when any small idea turns into mainstream, that to me is awesome. For kids today, this is their Polo. You're going to have a judge in 30 years that has a sneaker collection, or a cop that sees kids on the street and is like, ‘Man, I used to wear Supreme box logos!’ He was the kid buying them resale and he’ll be the cop that pulls you over in 30 years. And I think that's cool. It's like, you grew up in the 2017s!
For more on Virgil Abloh's 'The Ten', be sure to check out Material Matters: Deconstructing Virgil Abloh's Off-White X Nike Colab.